By Chukwuma Ajakah
Against the backdrop of the unmitigated assaults on the citizenry, Olalekan Ajayi sums up his reflections on the multifarious societal ills with the verdict that “We are all victims of rape” in his new collection of poems, “Questioning Voices”. As in JP Clark’s “The Casualties”, Olalekun observes that no one is exempted from the evil that bestrides the land.
Published in Nigeria by Kachifo Limited (2021), “Questioning Voices” is a follow up to the author’s maiden collection of poems “A Day Shall Come” which was published in 2015. Replete with diverse devices that convey the intended message while seamlessly connecting all the poems in the compendium, the new anthology unveils the poet’s ingenuity as a master craftsman. The unique style is observed from the introductory poem, “Invocation” which serves as a succinct prologue to the revelatory mine of divergent, but related “voices”.
The poems in Olalekan’s latest collection are predominantly of the narrative genre. The poet engages the reader as a storyteller would, using the conversational mode. The entreating lines excerpted from the “Invocation” suggest a reliance on the supernatural as the poet persona courts the Muse for guidance: Seasons after I emerged from/The plantation of verses/ With my maiden offering/ I seek, once more, your oil/ Upon my crown/ Upon my tongue/ Upon my feet/ I beseech you to fill my vacant mind/…To make me burn like bards of old/ … Lead me on the path of truth/ Help me to sharpen my tongue…/
The 153-page anthology contains 79 poems, tucked into five broad parts. Each part features distinct verses, depicting related thematic concerns. The first part, subtitled, “Conversations” features the following poems among others: Conversation with Myself, Bliss and Abyss, Difficult Questions, Beneath the Bridge and It is Well. The poems portray the poet’s thoughts on a number of societal phenomena. The first poem, “Conversation with Myself” opens with lines suggestive of insecurity and anxiety: “I abhor the night/ For sleep has sworn enmity with my lids/Lethal questions plague my peace/ And my heart shows me no pity/ In finding rest for my head/ … the questions gush like/ A burst public pipe.” The poem “Last Night” which appears in the third segment portrays a gory picture of the menace of terror herdsmen and bandits as wells as the attendant physical and psychological injury they inflict on their victims, prompting the ominous declaration that “We are all victims of rape.”
The second segment, “Voices” covers protest poems that stridently echo both the spoken and the unspoken concerns of the populace through the poet persona. Such verses include: “At the foot of the Unknown Soldier” which depicts the theme of futility of war, Give me not Power, My African Muse, The Unuttered Word, Why They Came for Him and In Defence of Myself. Decrying the prevalent socio-political and economic situation in the country, the poet explores the central theme of misrule and underdevelopment through the poems in Part3. The poems-most of which are pastoral, include: “I have known this Land”, “From The Depths of the Shanties”, “The Servant Leader”, Rain, Our Native Land, Message from Home, Who Shall Tell The Emperor? We Shall not Leave this Land to Them, In the Spirit of the Election, For Motherland and Self, When We Reassemble, The MP’s Epitaph, When the Malady Ends, Whenever it Rains and Where Truth Lies.
The next set of verses aptly titled, “Love Themes” focuses on the central theme of love. The themes explored in this segment are embedded in poems such as: Barren No More, Because My Heart Yearned, My Love before the Vows, Weary Soul, The Old Spinster, Unloved, Why I Love and Hate You, The One Made Beautiful by the Maker and I Await You. The thematic preoccupation encompasses various dimensions of love as well as love related issues such as: marriage, fruitfulness, childlessness, love-hate relationships, courtship, broken promises and disappointment.
Each of the six poems in Part 5, chronicled as “Tributes” is of a single stanza. The poems featured in this last segment include odes, celebrating some unsung heroes such as the late Flying Officer Tolulope Arotile and a school teacher with the subtitles: “In Memory of my Teacher”, “Transition of the She Sky-Warrior” and “Island of the gods”. As instantiated in the poems, “The Honest Poor”, the subject matter of most of the poems is an unsung hero/heroine whose virtues the society rarely recognises. “In Memory of My Teacher” celebrates a selfless teacher whose enduring legacy impacts generations after his death.
The poems harp on a barrage of worrisome personal and national issues: marital crisis, religious conflict, widespread insecurity, uninspiring political culture and deterioration of values. In exploring these thematic concerns, the poet posits some soul-searching rhetorical questions: “…What if I were not my progenitor’s seed/ Or I was conceived in slavery? / What if these scions of mine/ Came off the loins of another? What if I have vehemently sermonised/Against those I was anointed to preach to?” Most of the lines of “Conversation with Myself” are in rhetorical questions, except for the last line: “I perceive I may never know until it confronts me” which depicts a theme of resignation to fate,
In the poem, “Bliss and Abyss” the poet experiments with antithesis, embedded in oxymoronic expressions. The thematic treatment of the poem as mirrored in the excerpted lines thrives on this technique: The folly of the wise and bravery of the coward/ Where bliss and abyss eternally duel/ Where in some cases adoration at first sight/ Evolves into fight at the slightest provocation/ And love and hate choke each other’s throats/ Men cringe at being called equals/ And women go to war to be called equals/ Both recruit ignorant foot soldiers/ In vain pursuit of ephemeral vanities/ Unaware that these mortal titles will mean nothing/ When and where souls enter retirement…./
One of the political satires in the anthology is “Who Shall Tell the Emperor?” The poem portrays the twin themes of mistaken identity and betrayal of trust. The thematic preoccupation is realised through a brilliant combination of metaphors, sarcasm and irony as in: “Now that the palace is more than a fortress/ Those who hailed the king are ashamed to weep/ Because the present plundering is baser/ Than the pillage of the former lords…/ Each of the four stanzas of the poem reflects a phase of the pitiable downward trend in the fortune of the people as well as the chameleonic posture of the Emperor who had ascended the throne as a messiah via the sympathy votes only to betray the citizenry: “/…the Emperor/That swore to dine with the voiceless/ Is like one at the rainbow’s end,/ Shielded from the sun and hidden from the moon/ The people’s liberator has turned into a gecko…/”
In another satire, “Nothing Interests Me” the poet decries the colossal failure of the political class at alleviating the suffering of the masses and keeping their pre-election promises. The lines laden with metaphors include: A sore and heavy tongue/ Causes my throat pain and/ Clutches my stomach in hunger./ It matters not what you serve/ Nothing interests me/ Beyond the celebration/ Of the king’s coronation/ Fear looms over the land/ Because the plague persists/ So, nothing interests me./ One tyrant kisses the dust/ A hundred others lay in wait/ With a thousand sycophants available/ To sing praises where curses suffice…/
The didactic poem, “It is Well” depicts themes of relative contentment and apathy. The central theme is realised through the portrayal of the divergent attitudinal dispositions of the people. The poet juxtaposes contrasting lines, to emphasize the existing dichotomy. Replete with antithesis, the poem mirrors the motive behind each social group’s philosophical stance: “The rich say it is well/ As abundance surrounds them/ The poor say it is well/ Because they hope to be like the rich/ The old say it is well/ For they have traversed generations/ The young say it is well/ Because they possess energy to will/ The innocent say it is well/ Because they know they are not guilty/The culpable say it is well/ Because they escaped prying eyes/ Politicians who gain power say it is well/ For they have access to the commonwealth /The voters say it is well/ Because the choices before them are the same…/”
The poet explores the themes of cultural alienation and racism in the poem, “The Land of the Free” which re-enacts the culture shock he had in a foreign land while searching for freedom: The steel bird carried me across the oceans/ To the gates of the land of the brave/ Where I voyaged to learn about craftsmen/ Though cleared as a legitimate guest/ The soldiers at the city gate perceived me/ As a mysterious being from a strange world…/ Closely related to “The Land of the Free” is “Lamentations of An Exile” in which the persona reminisces on the events that preceded his self-imposed exile, saying: I did not leave of my own volition/ The handing over of the crown/ From one mean despot to a fiercer one/ Made me flee with my voice/ Which they sought to silence…/
Olalekan’s “Questioning Voices” is rich in content, style of delivery and aesthetics. It will provide a delightful reading experience for not only lovers of poetry, but all categories of readers.